Different portions of this article, first written in 1994, have appeared in the Progressive Review, Utne Reader, San Francisco Examiner, Atlanta Constitution, and as a chapter in ‘Sam Smith’s Great American Political Repair Manual,’ published by WWNorton in 1997. Here is the entire article.
Sam Smith –If you take the long-term view of things, it may be of some comfort to realize that the neighborhoods of mediaeval Damascus were controlled by gangs who wore distinctive colors and specialized in robbery, looting and assasination.
On the other hand, most of us live in the short-term, so it may be more relevant to recount a few things that have occurred since I started working on this article:
· A gang of Washington, DC, youths fired more than 30 shots into a crowded indoor market killing a 15-year-old presumed to be their target and wounding eight others.
· A dozen New York City police officers were arrested for running a drug shakedown and protection racket. Many other officers knew about it and said nothing.
· The president of the United States proposed that public housing tenants in Chicago and elsewhere give up their 4th Amendment rights and sign leases permitting warrantless searches of their homes.
· It was revealed that the only way you could get into DC public housing over the past few years has been by bribing a public housing official.
Because of stories like these, I hear more people asking whether there is a future for the American city anymore. Many of them are discouraged, the way people were discouraged following the urban riots of the 60s. Some are talking about leaving. But some are angry and want to do something to save their cities or they are already doing something and want to talk about what they’ve learned.
If we feel helpless in the face of urban problems, it may be in part because we are still new at the game. Urban sociologist Claude S. Fisher, a Berkeley professor who has written a couple of books on the urban experience, says that “our species has lived in permanent settlements of any kind for only the last two percent of its history and the urban era covers only half of that.” As late as the 1850s, just two percent of the world’s population lived in cities of more than 100,000.
If we feel ambivalent about cities, it is perhaps because they are big enough to contain all the contradictions of life itself — and life, Emerson noted, is “evermore beauty and disgust, magnifience and rats.”
If we are fearful, we have companions in the poet Shelly who called Hell a city “much like London,” and Thomas Jefferson who saw American cities as “a pestilence to the morals, health and liberties of man.”
And if we decide to pack up and leave, we are certainly not alone. Since 1970 one third of the people in Cleveland and Detroit have moved out without being replaced. Atlanta, Baltimore and Philadelphia have each lost about 20% of their population, Chicago 17%. St. Louis has lost half of its citizens since 1950. Washington, D.C.’s population loss in the past four years nearly equals that for all of the 1980s.
And if we do leave, where will we go? To another city, or something barely distinguishable from it. Maybe Charlotte NC, which has grown 64% since 1970 or Phoenix which is up 68%. Even when we speak of the suburbs, we are increasingly only describing a change of address, not a new life. Crime, congestion, racial conflict, worries about schools and pollution are all problems that no longer stop at city limits. We now choose between kinds of urbanity, not between cities and something else.
The purified community and edifice economics
That cities have problems is nothing new. One of the functions of cities has always been the efficient exploitation of labor, producing a continual struggle between those doing the exploitation and those enduring it. And there has always been crime. Architectural critic Charles Lockwood quotes the mayor of New York City declaring in 1839: “This city is infested by gangs of hardened wretches” who “patrol the streets making night hideous and insulting all who are not strong enough to defend themselves.”
The question of urban life has consistently been one of competing virtues and faults, but what is happening now suggests a new stage in American urban history: the growing perception that our country’s major cities are not worth the trouble.
The commercial advantage of these cities has been eroded by the suburbanization of business to malls and office parks, the communications advantage eroded by technology like fax machines and telecommuting and the cultural advantage by television, film and tape. Perhaps most important, we have increasingly come to see those who still need cities — immigrants and the unassimilated native poor — as threats to the common good, endangering our lives and wasting our tax dollars.
These changes in the city have been a long time coming. The streetcar and then the automobile destroyed the compact city in which people lived and worked within walking distance. In its place came suburbanization with the man leaving the neighborhood for employment and the wife staying home, leading eventually to what one writer described as the modern centaur: half woman, half stationwagon. These changes, which also reflected cheap energy costs and what we now see as a dismal misunderstanding of environmental impact, accelerated dramatically after World War II, placing enormous strains on the city. While the surburbs were enjoying an intentional boom, the cities were being involuntarily decimated — socially, physically and economically.
As new freeways stabbed city neighborhoods, federal housing programs provided easy suburban money — shunning urban neighborhoods with a self-fulfilling prophecy of decline and deterioration. Businesses, manufacturng jobs and residents drifted or were forced outward and in their place a vast internal migration of poor southern blacks fleeing oppression and seeking opportunity arrived in northern cities to share tense space with blue-collar whites the surburban boom had left behind.
The national response to these developments turned sharply pessimistic following the riots of the 60s. In place of the hopeful rhetoric of the war on poverty, a language of urban dispair arose. Rather than repair the damage to our cities, to many it seemed simpler, and certainly less dangerous and more profitable, to rebuild the American city somewhere else. As early as 1971, articles were cropping up such as the one in Time on “Suburbia: The New American Plurality,” and in US News & World Report: “New Role of the Suburbs.” As early as 1972, Fortune ran an article declaring that DOWNTOWN HAS FLED TO THE SUBURBS.
Meanwhile, inside the old cities, the political response was not to deal with the social implications of what was happening or to meet imaginatively the econmomic challenge of the new suburbs, but rather to change the look of the place — to focus on physical solutions to what were deeply social and economic problems.
Behind this attempt was what what author Richard Sennett has called a search for “the purified community.” Describing the psychology of urban planners in The Uses of Disorder, Sennett says, “Their impulse has been to give way to that tendency, developed in adolescence, of men to control unknown threats by eliminating the possibility for experiencing surprise.”
Even the best American minds felt the impulse. William 0. Douglas wrote a Supreme Court decision in 1954 upholding the country’s first massive urban renewal project, which included the brutal clearing of 551 acres of existing Washington, DC, community. Said Douglas: “The experts concluded that if the community were to be healthy, if it were not to revert again to a blighted or slum area, as though possessed by a congenital disease, the area must be planned as a whole.”
Such assumptions brought waves of urban renewal, freeways, convention centers, stadiums, subways, pedestrian malls, waterfront developments and, most recently, proposals for casino and riverboat gambling — all in the name of urban progress and a healthier tax base.
Few of these schemes would ever come close to realizing the claims made on their behalf. Even the rise of black urban politicians did little to change the course of the American city; many became among the most exuberant boosters of edifice economics. The successful bidders might be different; the contracts remained much the same. The black mayor may have been king; but the white business community still ran the parliament.
In the last 40 years, powered by visions of sparkling new cities, we remade the urban landscape. In the name of clearing slums and blights, we have gutted many vitial urban communities, replacing them with gargantuan concrete complexes for parking cars, playing sports or doing business. Most of this has been done in the name of attracting new employment. Even when the jobs came, however, it didn’t necessarily help the city that much. For example, for more than a decade Washingtonians heard Mayor Marion Barry brag of bringing employment to the city, yet when the final score was in, all the new private jobs — 60,000 of them — went to mostly white suburbanites, while employment of mostly black DC residents actually declined 15,000.
Barry had deceived his constituents no more than the average big-city mayor. Business Week reported earlier this year that Atlantic City “legalized casino gambling in 1978, but few of the hoped for benefits have materialized. Only 10,000 of the city’s 46,000 casino workers are locals. And while the casinos have paid about $2.5 billion in taxes to the state little has trickled down to the town.”
Similarly more than 300 cities have built convention centers based on extremely dubious economic projections. As Lawrence Tabak described it in a recent issue of Atlantic Monthly, “Every city is afraid of being left behind, and seems undisturbed by the prospect of twenty-five years of a multimilion-dollar debt.”
Even mid-sized towns have become enanmoured of the approach.. Commented the Casco Bay Weekly, an alternative newspaper in Portland, Me:
“There’s been a piranha-like feeding frenzy to build aquariums ever since Baltimore revitalized its waterfront with a big and fancy fish house in 1981. Every town and city in search of touro-dolars since has erected new aquariums, including Charleston, SC; Camden NJ; Owls Creek, VA; St. Petersburg, Fla.; Chattanooga, Tenn.; and Oklahoma City, Okla., just to name a few. The bandwagon is picking up speed and Portland is desperately trying to hop aboard.
“But how many big fish can the American public be expected to look at? Our guess is that when you reach a certain concentration, the allure of fish watching drops off dramatically, If every midsized city in the nation builds a glitzy aquarium, why should anyone come to Portland to watch fish?”
The public and the private city
The emphasis on physical solutions to urban woes exemplifies what British critic G.K. Chesterton once described as “the huge modern heresy of altering the human soul to fit its conditions, instead of altering human conditions to fit the human soul.”
The alternative to such urban policies, in the nice distinction made by Claude Fisher, are policies for urban people. Arnold Weinstein of Brown University, who teaches about the city from the perspective of the arts, says that “no one is an expert on the experience of city life.” What we call urban expertise usually involves the manipulation of data that, in the end, explains far less than it pretends to. It judges the urban experience on economic, physical or statistical factors which may move in directions quite independent of cultural and emotional currents.
For each of us there is a public and a private city. Some live primarily in former and typically describe the city with concrete numbers — so many of some problem per 100,000 — and abstract phrases such as “we need a public-private partnership.” Many, many more, though, know the city as a collection of specific stories and people. It is not just understanding that gets lost in this gap. Urban policy seeks to improve a city’s numbers rather than the specificity of individual lives. The result is that many plans still — although more covertly than in the days of “urban removal” — implicitly assume that part of the solution is a better class of people moving to the place being planned. We do not yet require human impact statements that might reveal a plan’s true cost in higher rents, ethnic and economic change, effect on existing social structure and institutions, or access to places that matter.
Usually the goals of urban policy closely parallel the economic interests of large corporations and local media organizations. For example, while a discussion of metropolitan regionalism may produce a near orgasmic response from a big city newspaper editor or corporate executive, I have run into few other persons who are excited by the thought of living in a “region.” Most, I suspect share the view of Michael Keaton, who in The Paper screams at the globalist, gray haired, New York Timesish editor, “I don’t live in the world! I live in fucking New York City!”
When urban elites talk about their “region,” they mean an economic or marketing area, not a cultural or ecological affinity. Such definitions sometimes overlap — as with “the Bay area” of San Francisco, but for the most part we are not expected to be good citizens of our region so much as to be good consumers.
Every self-respecting metropolis, for example, has a city magazine depicting the most mundane commercial activities with adjectival abandon. A style of business writing has arisen that transforms single-mindedly avaricious real estate developers into characters from a Raymond Chandler novel, whose every deal involves the mystery and tension of the Cuban missile crisis. Meanwhile, architectural critics ascribe to the latest highrise office cube the grace of an oil by a Flemish master.
Over the past forty years, this literature of urban capitalism has transmorgfiied the image of the organization man from a depressing and pathetic white male figure to one who is not only exciting and sexy but one whom women and minorities demand the right to emulate. Similarly, we no longer frown over the banalties of suburbia, but nod thoughtfully at Joel Garreau’s claim that suburban “edge cities” are “the most purposeful attempt Americans have made since the days of the Founding Fathers . . . to create something like a new Eden.”
The idea that God’s work has finally been successfully replicated by suburban real estate developers is challenged by the lives and perceptions of ordinary citizens, most of whom think in terms of jobs, friends and communities rather than of commercial markets and their regions. It also is markedly out of sync with the literature of more personal urban experience, ranging from Theodore Dreiser to Ice-T. Or with the stories we tell each other. The mother stuck in traffic five miles from a soon closing day care center would be hard-pressed to feel the liberative benefits for women claimed for the new suburban utopia and the unemployed inner city dweller might not notice the signs of regional growth his morning paper has so enthusiastically described. Regardless of what we read or see on television, we all live in a private as well as a public city.
We could describe this private city by placing a pin in a map for each location we have visited over the past several months. This personal city might include only a small portion of the metropolis, a fact that suggests one of the prime assets of the city: choice. In a city we can create our own village, and we can select our own family. Away from the predetermined human and physical geography of a rural or small town community, we have a chance to design our own environment. The city, suggests Weinstein, becomes not so much a place as “work being done.”
It is this activity, this flexibility — this unfinishedness — that perhaps best distinguishes the traditional city from not only rural and small town America but even from the urbanity of the later suburbs. As one critic has noted, if the urban core were truly superfluous why would edge cities need their periphery upon which to rise? In part because we still need places to go to seek answers as well as to be given them.
The incomplete quality of the traditional city creates opportunity, which in turn is accompanied by danger. Weinstein points out that a number of qualties of the city — anonomity, encounter, and exchange — can have both happy and sad endings. We can be free of pryng neighbors but we can also be lonely; we can get a good job and we can be mugged; we can get a promotion and we can get ripped off, and so forth.
It is perhaps this very level of risk that self-selects for the city a more aggressive, unconventional and ambitious resident. Claude Fisher notes, for example, that in more cases than not, migrants from other countries “are better educated, smarter, more highly motivated than the people who stay behind.”
The risk of the city becomes magnified when driven by huge urban deficits and panic over crime. But even in quieter times we have tended to regard cities as places of greater alienation, stress and loneliness than small places. In fact, sociological studies do not support this. Suicide rates in the 19th century were almost always higher in the cities, but this is no longer consistently the case around the world. In the US, cities have more alcoholism, but in France the rural areas do. While city dwellers are far less likely to know many of their neighbors than are rural Americans, this does not mean the former have fewer friends. What seems to happen has been described by Lynn Lofland: “The city dweller did not lose capacity for knowing others personally. But he gained the capacity for knowing others only categorically. [He] did not lose the capcity for the deep, long-lasting multifaceted relationship. But he gained the capacity for the surface, fleeting, restricted relationship.” Like Blanche Dubois, the urban dweller learns how to rely upon the kindness of strangers as well as that of friends and relatives.
It is also important to bear in mind that the characteristics we ascribe to the city may actually be characteristics primarily of American cities, reflecting such cultural traits as competitiveness and violence. In Europe, for instance, the upper middle class congregate in the center of town and the poor live in the suburbs. Americans have also been traditionally more anti-urban than Europeans, which may, it has been suggested, make it more difficult for us to commit ourselves to the improvement of our cities.
In other instances, the characteristics may only apply to certain types of urban places, a point dramatically illustrated by Edmund P. Fowler’s study of 19 different Toronto neighborhoods — ranging from the physically diverse (mixture of building types and uses and with short blocks) to homogenized areas such as those with only suburban houses, high-rises or warehouses. Among Fowler’s findings:
“The less overall small-scale physical diversity, no matter what the socio-economic makeup of the neighborhod, the less neighours knew each other, the more crime, especially juvenile crime, there was. It is important to note that this relationship held up in the suburbs as well.”
One of the problems with the non-diverse neighborhood — whether high rise apartments, warehouses or suburban tract housing — is that activities become heavily privatized. This, says sociologist David Popenoe, leads to a breakdown of informal control mechanisms, especially for the young:
“If juveniles are to be negatively sanctioned in public areas prior to committing crimes . . . their actions must first be observed either by persons known to them or by others acting, as it were, as the agents of such persons.”
The city as victim
It is cities’ enduring service to our conflicting urges for both excitement and security — what geographer Yi-Fu Tuan calls shelter and venture — that makes even the grimmest among them continuing magnets. Even as those who have used them well and long for their own purposes flee to the quiet, comfort and safety of another place, the artist, the drug dealer who will someday cash in his chips for a legal business, the ambitious new immigrant, the young college grad, move in and begin the urban story again.
It is difficult in the midst of the pain of the local evening news, however, to recognize — let alone celebrate — this traditional urban tale. Even in progressive political circles, urban politics has become largely a grim matter of legislative panhandling, of subsidizing survival, and of mitigating damage. There is a fatalism that creeps into our talk of urban affairs.
Consider, for example, the LA riots. In the thousands of words pouring out after the LA uprising you could easily search in vain for one sentence implying that anyone — victim, participant or would-be reconstructionist — had any real hope for our inner cities other than partial salvation through moral conversion or partial recovery through endless subsidy.
But what, if just for a moment, we had put aside our fatalism and asked ourselves a different sort of ques-tion:
How could we turn South Central LA into a good place to live?
Simply mouthing the words reframes the issue. It is a revolutionary question because, by asking it, we bring the people of South Central LA out of the shadows of stereotypes, statistics and sob stories. We begin to view their problems as we might that of a neighbor rather than that of an abstract crisis to whose amelioration we must dutifully but futilely tithe in the name of doing something.
The people living in a community like South Central LA are mostly normal people in abnormal circumstances. To be sure, such communities have an excess of social deviants, but they are deviants of their own community’s norms as well as those of America in general. It is one of the libels of our times to assert that the failure of these communities is a failure of morality or of courage. Walk down any inner city street in America and you’ll find more people with more courage, resilience and integrity than you’ll find in your average bank, college administration or offices of the President of the United States. These are people who every day have to face the most extraordinary strains on their dignity and self-respect.
Back in the 1960s, when I was editing a newspaper in the inner city of Washington, DC, I thought it would be interesting to list all the churches within our 2 square mile circulation area. There were over a hundred, ranging from a couple of Catholic parishes to the Revolutionary Church of What’s Happenin’ Now. Yet this same community was, we were told even then, in the grips of pathology.
The first, easiest and cheapest positive step anyone thinking about America’s cities can take is to eradicate words like ghetto, pathology, at-risk, culture of poverty, and permanent underclass from their vocabulary. These words are powerfully self-fulfilling rhetoric and alibis for indifference. Until we see these communities as real places with real people entitled to the same pursuit of life, liberty and happiness as any other American, we will continue to regard them as targets of triage rather than as an integral part of our society. We will see them as inevitable victims rather than probable survivors.
To free ourselves from the urban crisis we must first free ourselves from the alleged inevitability of an unhappy ending.
Back to the neighborhood
For changes to occur there must first be a political mechanism, a pump to move the water of our thoughts and dreams from the past to the future. Today, one of the primary characteristics of our political system is the isolation of the citizen from the politician. This wasn’t intended by the country’s founders. Those in the first Congress, for example, represented only 40,000 people as opposed to 600,000 in the average congressional district today.
Thomas Jefferson wanted us to live in “small republics” with each citizen “an acting member of the common government.” Today, in contrast, citizens lack access to politicians; and politicians, responsible for oversized political units, rely heavily on bureaucrats who are unresponsive to the citizen.
Both the politician and the bureaucrat have become scornful of democratic procedures as they become less dependent upon them. The citizens become more scornful of democratic procedures as they apparently fail them. Subtley, but siginificantly, we lose our status as citizens and are reduced to mere “taxpayers” or “customers” of government services.
Finally, the citizens’ contact with politicians increasingly comes through the images of the media rather than through direct or even second-hand contact.
Neighborhood government offers an antidote to this chronic gap between government and governed. There is, after all, little reason to cling to the notion that the solution to our problems is to spend more money on a form of urban government that has increasingly shown its incompetence. To say that because the crime rate is rising sharply we should therefore double the size of the same police force that has thus far been unable to cope with it; to reward with more concentrated power a city government that has spent decades on absurd, disruptive and cruel planning; to continue to vest the power of educating our children in an administrative system that appears to lag as far behind the human intelligence norm as the children its miseducates do in reading and math — surely this can have little logical justification.
Neighborhood government is also pragmatic politically. Much political dissatisfaction comes from the inability of residents to make their concerns felt at city hall. Problems are specific; big city government by its nature is general. If you don’t fit the average or the generalized model you get left behind.
Back in the early 70s, Senator Mark Hatfield made the remarkable proposal that citizens be allowed to funmel a portion of their federal tax dollars directly to neighborhood organizations. In defense of this profoundly radical idea, he cited some figures that dramatically show how some of the nation’s social problems could be broken into smaller and more manageable parts:
“If, for example, every church and synagogue were to take over the responsibility of caring for ten people over the age of 65 who are presently living below the poverty level there would be no present welfare programs needed for the aged. If each church or synagogue took over the responsibility for 18 families who are eligible for welfare today, there would not be any need for federal or state welfare programs to families. If each church and synagogue cared for less than one child each the present day care program supported by federal and state funds would be totally unnecessary.”
One way to quickly and dramatically shift the power in a city away from city hall and to the neighborhoods is to create elected neighborhood councils with real power, including the power to sue the city government, to incorporate, to run community programs and businesses, to contract to provide services now offered by city hall, and to have some measure of budgetary authority over city expenditures within its boundaries. Not the least among their powers should be a role in the justice system, since it is impossible to recreate order in our communities while denying communities any place in maintaining order.
Budgetary authority (not the actual money) could be granted over, say, one percent of a community’s pro rata share of a city’s budget. In DC, this would mean an extraordinary $1 million for a neighborhood of 20,000 people. Federal revenue sharing of a similar magnitude would produce another million dollars for each such community in the country. Consider what could be done in your own community for $2 million a year and then try to figure out what happens to the money now.
While one community might choose to spend its money on education, another might choose more police patrols or recreation facilities. There would be mistakes, but they would be our mistakes, easier to understand and to rectify. Further, by permitting error we would also be permitting genius.
Neighborhood government is not some utopian scheme. It is, in fact, contemporary large city governance that is utopian in that there is no empirical evidence that it works. It is under this form of government that we generally find the worst crime, the worst education, the worst health, the worst pollution, and the highest unemployment.
Ending economic bussing
The city is changing whether we do anything about it or not. For example, Walter Truett Anderson, who writes regularly on future trends, thinks the skyscraper may be on its way out, a victim of changing workstyles, new communications technology, worsening urban congestion, and general inefficiency.
Other factors contributing to office obsolescence include the computer, the fax machine and the development of ways to keep businesses working around the clock. For example, Anderson notes that in India young technicians “spend their working day hooked up via satellite to the AT&T master computer in North Carolina, ‘debugging’ the programs that run America’s telephone system. Because of the time difference, they are coming to work just when the Americans who do the same thing in North Carolina are quitting, so the work goes on steadily round-the-clock.”
Telecommuting is also beginning to have an impact, although it is far more adaptable for some businesses than others. The greatest private contributors to the gross national product, for example, are real estate and retail trade, neither easy candidates for telcommuting. And Wired recently added the concept to its Hype List on the eminently practical grounds that “most employees still believe that phyiscal visibility is necessary for promotions, and this will keep telecommuting for catching on.”
Nonetheless, there are a growing number of workers like John Hemschoot who convinced the Federal Home Mortgage Corporation — he is director of home mortgage standards — to let him move from McLean, Virginia, to Highland Ranch, Colorado, where he still answers phone calls made to the corporation’s northern Virginia area code. And the Washington Post reports that the president of the Denver-based Center for the New West likes to sail, and so maintains his telecommuting in Annapolis, Md.
But such changes tend to obscure the fact that we are not experiencing the replacement of the city so much as its transformation. What is really occurring is a diaspora of urban culture so pervasive that towns like Burlington, Vt., and Lancaster, Pa., are cropping up in business magazines as centers of urban economic opportunity.
If older cities are losing out in this transformation, it may be as much a result of the entropy of imagination as anything. Jane Jacobs in her Cities and the Wealth of Nation argues that “economic life develops by grace of innovating; it expands by grace of import-replacing.” In other words, invent a better mousetrap and make your own cheese to go in it. Silicon Valley is a dramatic example; more mundane but still economically important is the fact that Rhode Island — really a city-state — is a national leader in costume jewelry.
Jacobs talks about urban development officials who “work so hard to attract industries into moribund economies which for seemingly mysterious reason are too passive to generate industries of their own, and who therefore scramble and compete for the insufficient supply of active and creative city economies.” It is this passive approach — easily identified by a local obsession with attracting rather than creating new business — that characterizes the economy of the older city.
The idea of the city as a trading center goes back to least to ancient Greece. It is as applicable to LA or Chicago as it was then. Consider, for example, zip code 20032, one of the poorest in Washington, DC. 20032 has a per-capita income of $9,039. By American standards that’s not much, but it’s greater than the per-capita gross domestic product of Israel and almost as much as Italy and the United Kingdom. The total household income of this one poor neighborhood is $370 million a year. What happens to that $370 million after it gets to the neighborhood is vital to what happens to the people who earn it. At present, much of the $370 million simply flows through the community as though through a sewer.
One is reason for this is that the same thinking that places excessive reliance on convention centers and similar structural solutions has also fostered dependence upon the importation of workers, jobs and federal funds. Far from replacing imports, the traditional city has encouraged, through rezoning and other techniques, the removal of small businesses employing city residents in favor of space for larger corporations hiring a heavily suburban workforce. Yet it is precisely in these small businesses where new ideas take form and where self-generating economies can begin.
The key to the economic revival of the older city is the development of these self-generating economies. The self-generating economy has a long history in America. Many of the country’s early communities were largely self-sufficient. This self-sufficiency, however, disappeared with the concentration of industry and land ownership. In cities, one can easily find self–generating economies although we seldom recognize them as such. The explosion of the legal profession, for example, reflects in no small part the ability of lawyers to create jobs for each other. The yuppie phenomenon can be seen as a self -generating economy: yuppies creating artificial needs for other yuppies and with some selling and others buying items that fulfill these needs.
The importance of such economies tends to be disregarded because they don’t have the visible form of a single corporation or factory. Yet the impact can be dramatic.
For example, if all of Washington’s taxi drivers worked for a single company, they would form the largest firm in the city. You’d never guess it from public policy, which is far more concerned with the regulation of these activities than with the encouragement of them. They are treated more as a nuisance than an essential part of the economic life of the city. Thus, one of the few industries anyone in the city can enter without the vagaries of “personnel procedures” and without a college education is actively discouraged.
Nationwide, a study by the Department of Transportation found that 87% of some 100 cities with taxi service restrict entry into the business in some way. Chip Mellor of the Institute for Justice notes that Denver has denied every application for a new taxicab company since 1947. In Boston’s permits cost $60,000 and New York’s $140,000; in LA and Chicago you can’t even get them.
Washington is a rare exception. The result is 12,700 cabs — more taxis per capita than any city in the country. Rather than celebrating this fact, there are periodic efforts to make the city’s cab system more like those elsewhere by restricting the number of cabs in various ways. This would, however, also restrict one more path to economic mobility. This particular route goes back much further than the the African, Arab and and Carribean drivers now taking advantage of it. In the 1950s and 60s, blacks immigrating to Washington found moonlighting as a cabbie one good way to squeeze into the middle class. And my wife, historian Kathryn Schneider Smith, found that among free DC blacks of the early 19th century, hack drivers left the largest estates — a reflection of their commercial contact with the white city and their exemption from the curfew on other blacks.
Clearly the most important policy towards such an traditionally effective economic system should be to not harm it. But we are constantly distracted from such logic. Hence the plans of the city of Chicago to move the Maxwell Street Market for the benefit of the expansion of the University of Illinois at Chicago. The Sunday market has existed for 120 years, and was described in the New York Times as “the mall of the dispossessed, from the Jewish pushcut peddlers selling fruit at the turn of the century to the black vendors of gospel tapes and toggle bolts, the Hispanic tortilla makers and Korean gym-shoe salesmen who all inherited the market from the Jews.” According to one study, some 40% of the market’s vendors go on to start regular businesses. The market attracts 20,000 customers even in bad weather and has annual sales some estimate at $20 million.
For 120 years, the Maxwell Street Market had worked precisely because no one had planned it. Rather everyone had let it happened. A natural commercial ecology had arisen, dirty, noisy, crowded and at times dangerous and repugnant, yet in its way immensely efficient.
There are, of course, plenty of ordinary citizens who applaud the anal approach to local affairs and are happy to rid urban American of its Maxwell Street Markets. What gets forgotten is that a city is not a private club. A city is a place used by a large numbers of people for enormously disparate purposes. For many, the city is a means of upward mobility and to the extent that it functions in this manner, this helps everyone. On the other hand, once you start defining people or their activities as socially unacceptable, you also start eliminating methods of survival and sources of public revenues.
After college, I lived in a rooming house in Washington’s Capitol Hill neighborhood that housed five single tax-paying young people. Today the house is occupied by one family. My neighborhood restaurant, gas station, dry cleaners, and mom & pop grocery store are gone, all carefully excised from the urban landscape in the name of a better Capitol Hill. But however much the ambiance has improved, there has been a hidden economic cost: fewer businesses per block and fewer taxpayers per square foot.
We must recognize that at the heart of a city’s material success is the self-sufficiency and balance of trade of that city’s economy. Central to this, as Jacobs notes, is the replacement of imports. And central to this is the belated recognition that the key to jobs in our cities is not the Fortune 500 but small business. Small business has not only been the country’s major producer of new jobs, but micro businesses — those with fewer than 20 employers — created 47% of the new jobs between 1984 and 1990. Small business is more likely to hold on to its jobs, less often damaging to the environment and less physically harmful to its workers.
Instead of helping small business, however, city legislators are prone to write regulatory measures with only big firms in mind, ignoring the effects their actions will have on a mom & pop company. For example, over the past few years my town has lost thousands of jobs through the simple expedient of over-regulating (or over-enforcement of the laws regarding) street vendors, cabs, artist studios, street performers, interior decorators, and home occupations. It would appear that every time someone thinks of a good way to make money outside of working for a major corporation, a city councilmember comes up with a law to make it as difficult as possible. (One legislator several years ago even proposed the regulation of sperm banks — although the city has yet to have its first experience with one.) The result of such an approach is a reduction in employment, more ‘illegal’ activity and a growing tendency towards concentration in the particular industry involved, since only the most powerful are equipped to deal with the regulatory morass. Thus the economic space between being homeless and being a junior partner is slowly emptied. Employment choices are limited; innovation and entrepreneurship are penalized; and workstyles are homogenized. That so many choose to ignore the rules and drive their gypsy cabs or run their illegal business from their homes is a tribute to the staying power of American economic initiative, but at some point we should start discussing why this has to be so.
Good urban economics would be the economics of small business, of self-generating economies, of cooperatives and of neighborhood-owned companies. It would be the economics of recycling money within the city, of making things other cities need, and of giving every resident a fair chance to make a buck.
Justice and the ‘hood
The problems of the older city are intimately related to the problem of crime. One need not get into a chicken–and-egg argument to recognize that the failures of our cities contribute to crime and crime contributes to the failure of cities. The question is: how to be interrupt this destructive cycle? The conventional answers — more police and more prisons — not only haven’t worked they are beginning to bankrupt a number of cities.
At the core of the problem is a miserable, ineffective, unconstitutional and hypocritical “war on drugs.” In truth, the the drug problem is really an outward and visible sign of a multitude of other crises, many of which we show little inclination to confront. It is a symptom of the bored, underpaid or underfulfilled worker; the teenager without hope; the parent alone and adrift; the city without community; the education without meaning; the graduate without moral vision; the culture without purpose. And it is increasingly a cohort of mental illness.
The war itself has been a failure. No one can prove otherwise. We are no longer fighting the war on drugs to save the lives of addicts or to protect citizens accidentally in its line of fire. If we were, we would certainly notice the hypocrisy of demanding a tougher approach to violent crime while jamming our court system with minor drug cases We would be stopped in our drug warrior tracks by the fact that the percentage of juevenile arrestees in the naiton’s capital who test positively for drugs has risen three fold just since 1991. We would be concerned that the number of gangs in LA has doubled since the war on drugs was revived in 1985, that we. have effectively declared war against our inner cities, and that the chances of the young urban black male dying violently is greater than it was for blacks fighting in Vietnam.
Just as in Vietnam, we really are fighting the war on drugs in order to justify the decision to have begun it in the first place. We are fighting to protect the jobs and the budgets of those who still insist, in the face of massive evidence, that the drug war will work.
One of the worst products this war has been its contribution to urban violence. Drive-by shootings, assaults in schools and random attacks on innocent persons have resulted in growing demands for harsh retribution. Most middle class citizens, however, are unaware of the degree to which poorer urban America is already under para-miliatary occuption, including such unconstitutional measures as jump-out squads and warrantless searches of persons on interstate buses and at train stations. They don’t know about the de facto urban driving violation known as DWB — driving while black. Because white middle-class citizens do not match the profile of a drug courier; nor are likely to be found near a center city drug market; nor go to schools where the police — in a bizarre perversion of Officer Friendly — offer black students advice on how to behave when stopped by the police (as most of them will be); nor have the National Guard shining spotlights on their homes nor live close enough to a crack house to have their door mistakenly broken down by a SWAT team; there remains the stunningly inaccurate myth that somehow we have not been tough enough on urban crime.
The truth is that we long ago reached the outer limits of law enforcement’s ability to deal with urban crime. As one police official put it, what the police do is arrest people and “we already have more arrests than we know what to with.” What we have failed to do is to deal with the culture of crime and its alternatives.
Here is one small example: Washington DC recently became exercised over the increase in guns and violence in its schools. With great fanfare, the mayor announced a program that would add more police officers to those schools that had experienced the most significant upsurge, expand locker searches and so forth. There was general acceptance of the notion that escalating the police presence was the right approach.
Few noticed that there were other schools, also in high crime areas, that had not experienced unusual violence nor placed under intense police patrol. Why were these schools different? I asked the chief of security for the schools. Without hestiation, he replied, “Good management.” In other words, the school system was using the police not just to compensate for violent kids, but for poor principals as well — including one who was discovered to have returned a weapon to a gun-toting student at the end of the day. Indeed, even after the new measures were initiated, one student pointed out that all one had to do to bring guns into his school was to arrive before 8:30 am when the metal detectors were turned on, or import them during lunch break, when they were turned off.
There are other cultural clues to be found in this story. One of the reasons given for the inability to control guns in the schools is because some of the buildings have as many as 50 exit doors. How does one introduce a feeling of community in a building so huge that it has 50 exit doors?
Instead of dealing with such issues, we once again call upon the police to replace the former functions of family, community, school and church.. The irony is that the drive for family and community is so strong among the young that they manufacture a surrogate for what has disappeared. They call it a gang.
On the other hand, the imaginative introduction of positive alternatives can have encouraging results. One of the most signicant of these may be the teaching of mediation and conflict resolution. A teacher in this field, Kathy Owen, notes that many of the young simply lack the skills or language to respond other than physically to being ‘dissed.’ Her own work has been so successful that one of her high school students, upon hearing a bus driver and passenger in the midst of a heated dispute, walked to the front of the bus and announced, “I am a trained mediator. I think I can help you” And she did.
Sports can serve a similar function as Sam Dunn, a Little League coach, wryly described in his annual letter to team contributors:
“In March we began, as usual, the spring ritual of teaching, not baseball, but basic strategies for dealing with adjacent human beings; i.e. it is not always necessary to respond to one’s own failure by knocking the hell out of the guy next to you if he’s smaller than you, or by hurling a bottle or a rock at him if he’s bigger; i.e., there are other ways to deal with a friend’s failure than to jeer gleefully at his inadequacy; i.e., it’s not necessary to point out, every half hour, that a classmate’s mother is a drunk or that his father is in jail or that his sister is pregnant. This is always our first order of business cloaked as it might be in the guise of teaching baseball. Baseball is the ideal forum for teaching the art of failure because failure is endemic to the sport; the very best at any level fail to get a hit seven out of ten times.”
In fact, beyond the absolute necessity of meaningful jobs, it is hard to think of a better way to break the cultural grip of violence among young urban males than with a major improvement in school sports and after-school recreation programs. Certainly it is preferable to cutting recreation department funding, watching rec centers being taken over by drug dealers, and then wondering why there is a problem. Besides, coaches and recreation roving leaders could be desperately needed intermediaries between the young and the increasingly hated police.
We also need to find ways to restore the role of the community in social order. Most law and order stems from personal and community values or peer pressure of one sort or another — not law enforcement. There is no substitute for organic social order, as even totalitarian countries have discovered. To create this organic system of justice, we must return to the community and build our justice system out from it.
Community courts and neighborhood constables or sheriffs are one way of re-creating community law and order. Community courts could deal with misdemeanors using such correctives as community work and various forms of restitution. These panels should, however, truly represent the community and not merely be in it, as is unfortunately the case with a number of current decentralized court experiments.
Neighborhood constables or sheriffs could have the power of arrest and become symbols not of the city’s law and order, but of the community’s. Strange as this idea might seem, downtown business districts and shopping malls regularly practice it; their constables are called security guards.. New York City’s 42nd Street project, for example, employs some 40 public safety officers all linked by radio to the city police. In the first two years, aided by a community court that could handle minor offenses quickly, pickpocketing and purse-snatching dropped by 42 percent. Less prominent urban neighborhoods are entitled to similar protection.
The curse of zoning
One of the most neglected tools for change in America is the zoning law. Though introduced as a reform early this century, zoning has often been manipulated to provide vast profits for a small number of developers or, in the alternative, to serve the cause of social and ethnic exclusion.
Zoning is an entire system of social organization that has been endorsed by the Supreme Court and stands virtually as an appendix to the Constitution. If we look around America and ask why things are they way they are, we can not hope for a reasonable answer unless we spend some time on the issue of zoning.
The odd thing about zoning is that it is basically a figment of someone’s imagination — an arbitrary licence to do certain things in a certain place. Even more important than zoning is rezoning. Much urban commercial speculation is based on the potential for changes to, or exceptions from, current zoning. When developers say they can’t afford to build on a piece of property unless the zoning is changed, what they are really saying is that they paid more than the property was intrinsically worth on the bet that the zoning would be changed.
Imagine that your town or city were to grant you and your neighbors the right to build 15 stories atop your homes. You would suddenly become immensely wealthy — a major player as they say. But where would this wealth and power come from? In precisely the same way it comes to professional devel-opers, from an arbitrary license to make money while others are prohibited from doing so. Further, this license can only be arbitrary. If the granting of thin air were too well distributed, the value of the grant would diminish with the saturation of the market.
Thus, zoning policies serve as important redistributors of wealth, but usually in the wrong direction. Further, current zoning laws generally are blithely indifferent to decades of accumulated ecological knowledge, to the changing status of women, to the need for new economic opportunity and to the ghettoization of the city. The bias is against the mixed use neighborhoods, home employment and technological experimentation and innovation — and in favor of a socially, environmentlly and economically unsound emphasis on isolated, single-family residential living. Zoning, as presently constituted, is not only environmentally unsound, it but is one of the last great official appendages of a time when the government thought it could literally put women and minorities in their place. It needs to be deeply reexamined.
Putting things together
Edmund Fowler, the author of Building Cities That Work, points out that we have become accustomed to having functions segregated in our urban life. He notes that in most large North American cities, “Transportation and land use planning are carried out in completely different offices by completely different people” Further, “vast areas of the city remain largely unused during weekdays, and only come to life at night, on on weekends.” We transport our energy to our homes and work places and we segregate our factories and offices from our homes.
When we stop thinking of urban problems in discreet categories, new doors open. I once asked a transportation expert to name the single most efficient mode of mass transit. His reply: “Stop people from moving around so much.” Nothing we can do with mass transit can match the effect of lessening the need for people to travel. One study, for example, has found that doubling the population density of a city reduced annual per capita auto mileage by 25-30 percent. As Fowler points out, our deconcentrated segregated city has encouraged us to want mobility — the ability to get to what we need — rather than access, which is having what we need where we need it.
This preference has some curious results. Such as the 120,000 gallons of water it takes to build one car. Or the 1300 miles the the average food item travels in order to get from the farm to the supermarket. Or bioregionalist Peter Berg’s observation that that “Los Angeles extracts water from Northern California, coal from Colorado and liquified gas from Indonesia.”
To live the way we do also takes enormous amounts of space. While America is being rapidly outstripped by other countries in the population of its cities, it still excels in wasting land. Marcia Love of the Worldwatch Institute reports, for example, that while the New York metropolitan region’s population has grown only five percent in 25 years, developed areas have increased by 61% — “consuming nearly a quarter of the region’s open space, forests and farmlands.”
Contradictory as it sounds, agriculture and wilderness are an essential part of a city. Not only do they contribute to ecological balance, they offer solid social and economic advantages as well. Much as the separation of work and community has created numerous urban costs and tensions, so the separation of food growing and its consumption has been expensive and counter-productive.
The problem now is to preserve what we have not already destroyed. One place that has taken this charge seriously is Oregon which, according to City Watch, passed a land use act in 1973 that required each of the state’s 242 cities to “adopt plans that use urban land efficiently, while protecting prime farm and forest lands.
“The anchor of this program is a tool known as an Urban Growth Boundary. The UGB is a line that sharply defines the border between urban and rural. . . New development is severally limited or prohibited outside the line.”
Of course, you can also grow things in the city. Hong King, one of the world’s densest cities, raises 45% of its own vegetables. One survey of Harlem found a thousand lots that might be used for urban gardens were they not filled with trash, toxic materials and drug dealers. Harlem’s agriculturalists have had so much luck with their current projects that some talk of establishing vinyards producing the grapes for a Chardonney de Harlem.
Cities could plan for where their food will come from as carefully as where their residents will work. Farmer’s markets, with their lower transportation costs, reduced packaging and fresher food, should be regarded as essential rather than merely quaint. Of course, the rest of the food chain needs attention as well. Rather than shipping our garbage someplace else, John Todd has proposed greenhouse-based sewage-purifying, photosythentic ecosystems, which “look and smell like a botanical garden.” Todd has designed such a system for Harwich, Mass. He reports that it produced in the end high quality water with fecal coliform levels as low “as one hundredth those allowable for swimming water.”
The more we step into such a paradigm of urban ecology, the more we find ourselves drifting closer to other things — our work, our food, our environment, and our neighbors. Our sense of order no longer relies — in the tradition of American city planners from L’Enfant to Robert Moses — upon outward symmetry, illusions of order, and grandeur. Rather it seeks inner integration and grace. Our concept of the city steps away from the cold rigidity of the blueprint and comes closer to the joyful exuberance of a Richard Scarry drawing. We stop worrying about the sleek exterior of the car and concern ourselves with the less aesthetic but more essential engine.
As we change our focus, we find ourselves, among other things, rejoining the crowd — rediscovering the virtues of density For example, one study found that per-capita energy use in a low density city is twice that in a high density city. The authors offered some reasons: “ln high density cities, heat can be shared across the walls of different housing units, reducing the energy use for heating. When distances are short, bicycles can be used instead of cars, and a high density area can more easily maintain adequate ridership for public transportation, using up to three to five times less energy than single-person autos. With shorter distances for distribution, pipelines for sewage, gas, water, etc. can be shorter and energy needed for pumping is reduced.”
Further, a denser city provides alternatives to those now forced into the suburbs by the cost and availability of housing. One of the simplest, cheapest and quickest ways to do this, points out innovative planner Patrick Hare, is to permit accessory apartments (sometimes called granny flats) in single-family zones. Many of these apartments exist illegally — there are an estimated 40,000 in LA alone — supporting my theory that one of the best places to look for good ideas is in the underground economy. If normally law-abiding people insist on doing something against the rules, there’s a good chance that the people know something the law doesn’t.
T’he advantages of such apartments include lowering the effective cost of housing for the homeowner, increasing the housing supply , providing a social and economic mix within neighborhoods, allowing voluntary individual care to replace some of the need for social services (e.g. the young apartment dweller helping the aged landlord upstairs), providing neighborhood-based economic opportunity and increasing the number of eyes on the street.
Reviving the practice of taking in boarders could also increase housing. The boarder tradition played a major role in the growth of the American city, proving newcomers with an inexpensive place to stay while adding a source of income to those who had lived in the city long enough to own a house.
There are, of course, many other housing solutions — among them cohousing and modular buildings that can expand and contract with the owner’s needs — but accessory apartments and rooming houses are particularly noteworthy because they are examples of the many urban solutions that do not require high technology, massive bureacracies or huge expenditures.
Consider, for example, that most mundane of machines, the bicycle. Unimpressive though it may be, it is also true that through any given amount of space, you can move about twice as many people per hour by bike as you can by car, and more than 50% as many as by bus.
Or consider Curitiba, Brazil, where simple, inexpensive improvements such as exclusive bus lanes, boarding tubes, and traffic calming have produced a transit system that carries four times as many passengers as Rio’s subway and has encouraged 28% of the city’s drivers to switch to the bus. It took just six months to create. Say Mayor Jaime Lerner, “That means you don’t have to waste a generation building a subway.”
Cleaning up the place
In the 1960s, in the wake of riots four blocks away, a block club was formed in our neighbohood. The name — the Northeast Progressive People’s Association — reflected the grandiose politics of the times but the first project, suggested by a neighbor whose own backyard was paved with cracked cement across which rats would scurry in the yellow glow of the crime-fighting lights, was that we get some grass seed and plant it in all the tree boxes of our community.
Ever since, when I read of a politician, journalist or urban policy wonk condemning “cosmetic approaches” to city problems I wince. The hubris of many experts includes the assumption that others can wait as patiently as they for things to improve.
Later, when I was president of our elementary school’s paraents association, the regional superindent bragged to our board about her staff having painted their office. I immediately asked, “Where did you get the paint? We’d like to paint our school, too.”
She came through and we — parents, students and teachers — painted the inside of the school for a whole weekend, losing only one gallon of white paint accidentally spilled on the girl’s bathroom floor.
It is easy to lose sight of such little things in the compexity of urban America. But they are important. Buried in the news following the LA riots were details of a $3.6 billion recovery plan offered by two of the city’s most notorious gangs, the Bloods and the Crips. Here, included among larger proposals, are a few of their ideas:
“All pavements/sidewalks in Los Angeles are in dire need of resurfacing. ..
“We want a well-lit neighborhood. All alleys shall be painted white or yellow…
All trees will be properly trimmed and maintained. We want all weeded/shrubbed areas to be cleaned up and properly nurtured. New trees will be planted to increase the beauty of our neighborhoods.
“All schools shall have new landscaping and more plants and trees around the schools; completely upgrade the bathrooms, making them more modern, provide a bathroom monitor to each bathroom which will provide freshen-up toiletries at a minimum cost to the students…”
At a time when white America — and even much of black America — was wallowing in a post-apocalyptic vision of the city fostered by movies and the evening news, at least some at ground zero were envisioning a place of beauty, a place that defines itself visually as a community.
If the devil is in the details of urban life than so is the salvation. And a wise city would have plenty of free paint and grass seed to bring those together who want to do something, to give that first outward and visible sign of an inward determination to make things better.
Broadening the top
At the other extreme, there are matters that need to be tended to that are much larger than any individual city. The whole structure of the federal government is anti-urban, and by corollary anti-poor and anti-minority. For example, the Senate is so segregated that if it were a school system it would be under court-ordered bussing. If it were a private club you’d want to resign from it before you ran for public office.
How do we start to change this? One solution would be to create additional states, carved out of metropolitan areas. The efforts of Washington, DC and Puerto Rico for statehood could set a precedent. There is nothing particularly radical in this. Ask the folks in West Virginia, Maine or other states formed out of existing states. The country’s founders made statehood relatively easy to achieve, giving us an opportunity to periodically readjust the federal compact.
Dealing with the House of Representatives would be more difficult, although increasing its size would help it to become more representative, as would electing members by proportional representation.
There is also the vexing problem of distributing tax dollars fairly. One of the soundest approaches is federal revenue sharing, under which federal monies are redistributed to states and localities with relatively few strings attached. The concept, gutted during the Reagan years, could be revived with the addition of grants to neighborhoods that have elected governing bodies.
Although there has been some talk and experimentation with reigonal tax pooling (under which revenues are redistributed to a region’s neediest jurisdictions) the existence of enormous property assessment differentials between such jurisdictions is at the heart of regional fiscal inequities. The resolution of this problem may well have to await a Supreme Court that recognizes that communities as well as individuals can be discrminated against and that neighborhoods may be entitled to affirmative remedies just as much as an individual or a class based on race or sex.
New places and old stories
One instructive alternative to the conventional urban or suburban community are neo-traditional villages such Kentlands, designed by Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plate-Zyberk on a 352-acre plot in Gaithersburg, Md. Their plan is based on the traditional grid system with narrow streets. Schools, shopping, parks and recreational facilities are within walking distance. Among other innovations Kentlands provides retirement units alongside single-family homes and townhouses, and rental apartments above stores.
Wandering around Kentlands recently, I accidentally drove into a adjacent conventional development of suburban townhouses. What immediately signaled my error was not just the comparative blandness of the architecture but the rows of cars parked perpendicular to their respective abodes. At Kentlands, with its garages and offstreet parking, the automobile is far less intrusive.
At the same time there was a similarity between the two developments not apparent in the generally well-deserved praise of Kentlands and similar efforts. In neither place, it seemed, was there a story. Nor was there any sign of serendipity. In the traditional development, individuality was limited to the minor variations of vehicle choice. In Kentlands, despite the architecture evoking an assortment of historical styles, it all had the unity of a well-planned, cute, HO-guage railroad layout. Nowhere was there cause to ask, “Now how did that come to be there?” Or “What’s that for?” Kentlands, like the St. Petersburg described by Dostoyevsky, is a totally “abstract, premeditated city.” As architect John Wiebenson notes, “When you zone out the bad stuff; you also zone out serendipity.” And as Fowler argues, children especially — but also adults — need unprogrammed places to play. Yet I suspect that for the first generation of Kentland’s children some of the fondest memories will be that of playing in the mud and mess of a new construction site. They, too, like having “work being done.”
For the moment, Kentlands reminds one of Arthur Schlesinger Jr’s remark that a community without history is like a person without memory. Clearly, in ten or twenty years it seems more likely that there will be interesting tales from Kentlands than from its neighboring convetional complex, but what will they be? Will the varied architecture define the outer limits of the commuity’s eccentricity or will it inspire human variation as well? Will it be a community or only a country club that got out of hand?
And why do we tend to be more impressed by such new developments than we are by the communities they deliberately copy? Patrick Hare suggests that Kentlands’ real advantage is better marketing. For example, not far from Kentlands is the town of Garrett Park, a railroad suburb from the turn of the century. Writing in Western City, Hare described it this way:
“A small, single-family suburban town the size of a large neighborhod, the town owns its town center, complete with a deli and small grocery, a beauty salon, a fish market and a post office. The town controls business practies and the mix of businesses. . .People have to come to the town center to pick up their mail, and Garret Park has fought, not only against the loss of its post office, but also against home delivery of mail.
It is not easy to predict what will happen at Kentlands since, given time, indiviuality can flower in the most barren fields, as has occurred in some of the nation’s older suburban commercial areas and even in Levittown. But the very perfection of a place like Kentlands reminds one of the incalculable gift of surprise, quirkiness and chronolgocial anarchy available in the older city and town. And the fathomless wealth of stories and mysteries to be found there.
It is after all, the places of which we now dispair that partly inspired the neo-traditionalist architects, just as much of what has been described here involves little more than the rediscovery of urban practices and habits that existed during a better era of America’s cities.
We have in recent decades been so intent on making our cities neat and orderly that we have forgotten that the major contribution of the city is its explosive and random potential for opportunity. Our goal has been physical order and fiscal benefits; the results have been social disorder and huge deficits.
This was a big mistake, but in the end, it was not the fault of the physical form of the city or its economy or even its size, but rather it came about because too few were allowed to decide too much. Without functioning citizens you can not have functioning cities. As Shakespeare said, “The people are the city.” And as Jane Jacobs added: “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”